Robert Harneis -TDO- (France) After the aborted meeting with President Hollande in October 2016, Vladimir Putin finally came to France, this time to meet the newly enthroned Emmanuel Macron.
No one expected any dramatic change in the relationship to emerge from the talks but it was surprising that the first international head of state to be invited to Paris, since the presidential elections, should be much demonized Russian leader. Franco-Russian relations had sunk to an all-time low under François Hollande who did not nuance his subservience to the Obama/NATO line on Russia. When, last October, France joined in western mass condemnation of the bombing of Aleppo, the visit by the Russian President to Paris was cancelled. The Russians clearly felt that in the prevailing semi-hysterical atmosphere no good would have come from any talks.
It was apparently the newly appointed diplomatic adviser to the President, Etienne Philippe who inspired the sudden invitation. Philippe’s appointment to the key diplomatic post is in itself significant. He is an immensely experienced diplomat, an area in which Macron has absolutely no experience at all. He had been nominated to his final post before retirement as French Ambassador to Moscow, when he was diverted, at the last minute, to his new role as adviser at the Elysée Palace. He had already served for five years in the Moscow embassy as cultural attaché, was three years ambassador in Berlin, as well as having been head of the private of office of Foreign Secretary Bernard Kouchner under President Sarkozy and Prime Minster François Fillon. He is evidently no stranger to the idea that more sensible less gratuitously conflictual relations with Russia can only be in France’s interest. As President Macron remarked in the press conference ‘no major diplomatic problem today can be resolved without a dialogue with Russia.’
Whilst it was not an invitation to a state visit, it was however framed in a gratifying manner with the talks taking place in the splendid setting of the Palace of Versailles with a full ceremonial guard of honour, to attend the opening of the fortunately timed exhibition celebrating the 200th anniversary of the visit of Peter the Great to the court of king Louis XV.
In his opening remarks President Macron made much of Peter the Great’s visit being an opening by Russia to the West. He tactfully did not mention that on his first and longer visit to Western Europe twenty years earlier, from 1697 to 1698 Peter left France out of his schedule because of the treaty of alliance signed between the French king and the Turkish Sublime Porte.
During the press conference the Russian President appeared reserved and clearly on his guard. He is well used to patronizing, not to say insulting, comments from Western leaders. He was not disappointed when at the end of the conference Macron was asked why he had banned Russian journalists from attending his campaign headquarters during the recent electoral campaign. Macron did not pull his punches replying that Russian state-backed media outlets RT and Sputnik “did not behave like press outlets, but behaved like agents of influence and propaganda” which spread “serious falsehoods.”
Putin might have replied that Western media do this to Russia everyday but he was clearly determined not to quarrel with his new young fellow head of state and let it pass. He might also have pointed out that Russia Today have asked for instances of where they were guilty of such conduct but had so far received no reply. It is well known that, when he wants to, the Russian leader is well capable of holding his own in an argument. It is likely that he reserved his famously blunt comments on all subjects for the private talks.
Only on the subject of his having received a visit from Macron’s defeated rival, Marine Le Pen, did he go out of his way to defend himself, pointing out that it was not her first visit to Moscow and observing, “But why refuse this meeting? It would be strange to refuse a meeting with someone who has always called for an improvement in relations with Russia.” By implication in direct contrast with President Macron.
The huffing and puffing by Macron and his standard references to human rights in reality camouflaged a movement by the French government towards Russia. He was anxious to mend the rift under Hollande criticized by several candidates, between them attracting at least 50% of the votes in the presidential elections. Equally he was anxious not to alarm those in his own ranks that are hostile to Putin and apt to blame him for everything including the weather.
Hence, although he has previously said, unlike his predecessor, that ‘in effect, Russia had invaded Ukraine’, he announced a new meeting of the Normandy four in ‘the days and weeks to come’ with a prior report from the neutral OSCE on the current situation. He said, "We want to achieve de-escalation." Putin mentioned the Ukraine conflict only to call for an end to the sanctions imposed on his country drawing attention to World Trade Organization rules.
The two leaders agreed to set up a working group to elaborate a plan to counter terrorism in Syria. Significantly Macron said, "The fight against terrorism is our absolute priority, it is the guiding principle of our action in Syria,". It follows logically that his guiding principal is not the removal of Bashar al Assad from power. In reply to the question as to whether he would re-establish the French embassy in Damascus he said guardedly that it was ‘not a priority’. However so as not to sound too accommodating he went on to say that he had "two red lines": the use of chemical weapons and humanitarian access to civilians. He said that "France will retaliate to any use of chemical weapons". Quite what retaliation he meant was left hanging in the air but it sounded suitably uncompromising and statesmanlike. Putin made no comment. It should not be forgotten that this meeting was not unconnected with the current parliamentary elections in France where what is at stake is whether or not Macron will win a working majority in parliament.
The talks should also be seen in the light of France and Western European anxiety about the reliability of the United States support for NATO. Not only did Trump come to NATO aggressively demanding a greater financial contribution from his European military allies but refused specifically to endorse Article 5 of the treaty that binds all members ‘to give assistance’ to any member that is attacked.
As German Chancellor Merkel, speaking after the conference at an election rally, emphasized there is the need for friendly relations with the US, Britain and if possible Russia, but added: “We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.” adding “the times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over". Macron has close relations with Merkel and no doubt the talks with Putin were coordinated with her.
Generally, both sides will be quietly satisfied with the outcome of these talks, which have moved the relations between the two countries onto a more sensible less negative level. Perhaps the most significant aspect is that they took place at all. Macron did not have to issue such a flattering invitation and it was not a given that Putin would accept.